When World War II veterans pause today to remember the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese warplanes 67 years ago, Ray Turpin will be thinking about his shipmates who died, especially one he couldn't save.
He'll remember a sailor aboard the USS Oklahoma, chaplain Aloysius H. Schmitt, a Catholic priest from Dubuque, Iowa, who was trapped inside the sinking battleship and refused to let Turpin pull him to safety through a porthole.
Instead, Father Schmitt, the first chaplain of any faith to die in World War II, helped other sailors and Marines escape.
"Yeah, I'll be thinkin' about those guys," the 87-year-old Turpin said Friday at his Las Vegas home.
"The friends that I lost. The chaplain that I couldn't save. I was looking in his eyes and he said, 'I've already tried. I can't get out.' And I offered him my hand. I said, 'I'll try and pull you out,'" Turpin recalled, fighting back tears.
"He walked away and he said, 'I'm going to look around and see if there are any more guys that I can help get out of here.' So I waited a few minutes. He never came back. I never saw him again."
Schmitt helped a dozen men through the porthole, including five Turpin grabbed from his position on the outside of the hull. There were many who never made it, though. In all, 429 from the USS Oklahoma died in the attack.
"You feel so helpless, you know. All young guys. The life they never had a chance to live. Just beginning. And I came so close to being one of them," Turpin said.
"Close" is an understatement for the ordeal Turpin experienced as a 20-year-old Marine private assigned to the Oklahoma, a sister ship of the USS Nevada, which endured the attack. The Oklahoma, not far away and among the ships linked together by 3-inch-diameter ropes in Battleship Row, was struck by too many torpedoes and capsized before its crew could get off a shot.
Turpin was finishing his Sunday morning breakfast when the assault began.
"It was sudden," he said. "The first thing I noticed was the announcement over the public address system. They said, 'Man the anti-aircraft battery. All troops not involved in the firing seek cover on the third deck. ... Get out of your sacks and let's go.' That was like throwing a bucket of cold water in your face."
In disbelief, Turpin and other Marines in his compartment ran for cover on the third deck as the attack unfolded. One Marine peered out a porthole to see an enemy plane unleash a torpedo.
"It still didn't register that we were really in a war already," Turpin said. "I said, 'Let me see.' And I started to look out the window, and about that time the water hit me in the face. The explosion was very near underneath, very near to where I was standing, so it was quite a jolt.
"It felt like the ship jumped out of the water about three feet. Shortly thereafter, there was a second torpedo."
Moments later as the Oklahoma began to list on its port side, a command was given to abandon the ship.
Bullets from Japanese planes strafed the open deck as Turpin and other Marines ran across it in a futile attempt to reach their battle station to man a 5-inch gun.
"Nobody got hit ... and the ship kept turning over. People who were abandoning ship, they were coming from all directions, going over the side because the ship was rolling toward port and my gun station was on the starboard side," he said.
That was where the Oklahoma was tied up alongside the USS Maryland.
"People were jumping in the water between the Maryland and the Oklahoma. There was no way to get to shore, unless you swim about 200 or 300 yards," he said.
Because he wasn't a strong swimmer, Turpin decided to stay with the ship.
"I wasn't about to go down into that water. It was like a swimming pool full of people, and I could see them jumping on top of each other."
The Oklahoma began to roll over, listing 90 degrees to the point that the starboard hull became the ship's top side.
"I heard some people hollerin' for help," Turpin said in a Southern drawl characteristic of his roots in Waterloo, Ala.
That's when he went to the porthole where the chaplain was and pulled five sailors to safety.
"Some of them I had to put my arms around their chests and lift them out that way," he said. "But the last guy, No. 5, his name was Bob Burns ... he was a little larger and had a little more weight on him than the skinny little recruits that just came in. So I had a little trouble getting him through the porthole."
Turpin shouted for help and a shipmate showed up.
"The two of us, we each had an arm and were trying to move him out," he said. "The poor guy. We were about to pull his arms out of their joints. He'd scream and we'd let up. And he'd say, 'Don't stop. Keep pulling. We finally got him out."
All the while, Schmitt, the ship's chaplain, had been pushing men out from the inside. Turpin said he offered his hand but Schmitt wouldn't take it. "That was the last time I saw the chaplain."
As the ship was about to go under, Turpin looked for a way to escape and saw one of the 3-inch lines still connected to the USS Maryland.
With sailors drowning in the water beneath him, he tried to scale the line hand-over-fist.
"I was hanging under it like a rat," he said.
The line he was grasping, however, was pulling the Maryland away from its mooring with each foot that the Oklahoma sank.
"I was right up to the Maryland, and there was a guy standing there with a fire axe. The order came from the bridge to cut the line.
"I had to wait until they chopped the line off. So he chopped the line off and I went into the water with all this 3-inch line on top of me. I had a hard time figuring out which way was up," he said.
Turpin was floundering in the water that had become slick with oil from the sinking ship.
"I finally popped up and there was a sailor in the water who was a good swimmer. I told him I wasn't a very good swimmer. So he helped me over to the Maryland, where there was a 1-inch line hanging from the deck," he said.
With a boost from the sailor, Turpin managed to pull himself up the slippery line.
Once on the deck of the Maryland, he came across some of his fellow Marines manning an anti-aircraft gun.
"It's hard to explain all the confusion," he said, describing how he started opening boxes of ammunition and handing it to the guys on the gun.
"I put a few clips in ... while they were blasting away and I saw one plane going down," he said. "That was a good feeling. On the Oklahoma we never fired a shot, but I had a good feeling about dropping a few rounds in there and seeing them go where they were supposed to, and that plane that was low flying over the ship. They hit it."
Turpin went on to serve through the end of the war and the occupation of Japan, leaving the Marine Corps as a first sergeant in December 1960. That was more than 20 years after he had joined the corps on a snowy November day in Salt Lake City.
He lived in Columbus, Ohio, for a while, then moved to Las Vegas in 1966, with his wife, Wanda, to work as a civilian on the F-111 project at Nellis Air Force Base.
Even though the overturned hull of the USS Oklahoma was righted, attempts to salvage it for scrapping failed when it sank again in 1947 more than 500 miles from Pearl Harbor while being towed to San Francisco.
In 1943, the same year that the Oklahoma was righted, the Navy named an escort ship after the chaplain: the USS Schmitt.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.